Henri Nouwen and The Prodigal

About a year ago, my friend Mary Newkirk and I went through Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming, together.  It is one of those books that I think is an essential read for everyone, whether you consider yourself a person of faith or not.  As a result of some of our discussion together, I wrote a poem (Forgiveness) and she wrote this review.  She is such a good writer, check out her blog: http://becominggodsbestme.blogspot.com/


Ahhh, I have done it again. I have forgotten how to be “the father” in my relationships; I have forgotten how to “step over” the landmines of silly offenses that come my way…daily, it seems. Will I ever really become like the father in the familiar story that has grabbed my heart and attention anew? The millennia-old story that Jesus told of the prodigal son, the lost son…or sons, as Henri Nouwen determines, and we may overlook.  The story is in Luke, chapter 15. But for Henri Nouwen this parable came alive through the masterpiece of Rembrandt, named “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. And he wrote a book about how studying the painting and the artist impacted his life.

My friend Mary recommended this book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming, a few years ago. (It seems much of what I read is a result of Mary’s recommendations, I’m so grateful!) This book seems to be one that, much like the Bible, whenever you read it, you find different “gems” that fit the circumstance of your life at that moment. I’ve read it at least three times, and each time I must underline different sections. I guess that’s how you know when you’ve found a valuable work.

On my most recent journey into this book, I was particularly impacted by the idea of the compassionate love of the father and what Nouwen thinks are the three components of this fatherly love: Grief, Forgiveness and Generosity. 

Grief in that it asks us to shed tears over the sins of the world, that they pierce our hearts as we realize the waywardness of God’s children. Nouwen says much of our praying is really grieving, over the sins of the world, but even more-so because of our innate recognition of the boundless divine love of our Father.

Forgiveness is the second characteristic of the compassionate love of the Father, the second quality we must strive for in becoming the father in our own story. It is the father in the parable of the lost son who shows us how to not only say we forgive, but to actually “step over” the offenses that come our way. The offenses especially hurt when they are lobbed at us by our closest loved ones. They are bound to hurt the worst, to linger the longest, to burn into our hearts and memories. I wonder if I will ever become the father in this respect? That “stepping over” is so difficult…because after all, it is all about me! How could they? Why would they? Why does no one appreciate me and treat me with the care and attention I deserve? Becoming the father in my relationships necessitates that I step over, climb over, those walls of offenses that potentially kill a compassionate heart, that call my loved ones home with unconditional love. Yes, this is the most difficult for me, to climb over and not keep looking back.

Generosity is the third component of the compassionate heart. It calls for giving without reserve…giving energy, time, money, attention…all of the things that really cost me something. It is giving as they go out, and giving as they come back “home”. I wonder if I will ever consistently, authentically be “the father”?

For Henri Nouwen, it was about a painting. For me it is about his book by the same name. For you it may be something else entirely. But I recommend this book as you journey through the stages, as we all do, of being the younger son, the elder son and hopefully on to the true calling of being the father of your story. We are all of these at different stages in our life and each time you pick up this book, you will recognize yourself, I guarantee it!

Mary Newkirk


Thank you, Mary!

About Mary Herbert

I am a gentle listener, a woman of few words. My journey through life has been a spiritual one, as well as a physical one. My daughter, Katie, and I thought it would be interesting to combine some of our giftings/talents in a blog and see what happens. Let us know what you think!

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